Monday, May 23, 2011

Ramage 12-14

Ramage and the Renegades
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 14+

In Number 12 of the Lord Ramage Novels, it is the Year of our Lord 1802. Peace has broken out between revolutionary France and the United Kingdom—what proved to be only one year of peace in the middle of 22 years of warfare. For many in Britain's Royal Navy, peace was more dangerous than war. Ships no longer needed to blockade French ports or to protect merchant shipping were paid off, their crews put ashore, their officers consigned to half-pay. Meanwhile, those outside Addington's government fear that Britain, by giving up too much to the French in the Treaty of Amiens, may have "won the war and lost the peace"—or, even worse, that peace may be merely a chance for Napoleon to refill his supplies and arms for yet more war.

The duplicity of Napoleon worries Captain Lord Nicholas Ramage on a more personal level. Though the heat of his passion for the Marchesa of Volterra has cooled to something like the love between brother and sister, and though noblesse oblige rules out the possibility of marriage between the heir to a Protestant earldom and the ruler of a Catholic state, Nicholas worries about Gianna. He worries that the deceptive nature of the peace, together with the unclear status of Volterra, may make this new freedom to travel on the Continent a trap for Gianna. In spite of his best efforts to convince her otherwise, Gianna insists on traveling home to Volterra. And before Ramage can learn what will become of her, he is ordered away by the Admiralty on a peacetime mission that may give Britain an advantage in the next war.

His Majesty's Frigate Calypso, still manned by the best officers and crew in the fleet, sets sail this time for the Ilha da Trinidade, a tiny unpopulated rock in the South Atlantic, six hundred miles off the coast of Brazil. By some stroke of luck, this potential base for watering and victualling ships was left out of the Treaty, so its status is unclear. Lord St. Vincent wants Ramage to claim it for Britain, and sends him with a team of surveyors, masons, a landscape painter, and a botanist to map the island, to build fortifications, to plant potatoes, and to take soundings of the surrounding waters.

This seems a very straightforward mission. But it turns out to be filled with exciting incident. First there is the drunken fraud of a ship's chaplain, who threatens to destroy the morale of the crew before he is exposed. Then there is an encounter with a dangerously mad frigate captain, the first of at least three such cases in successive books, illustrating a sticking point in Britain's Articles of War in that there is virtually no way to remove a captain from command. And finally, in a harbor on Ilha da Trinidade, the Calypsos find a privateer with a string of prizes taken (allegedly) before the news of peace reached them. Which side of the fine line between privateering and piracy they stand on, becomes clear when they hold off the Calypsos by threatening to kill the passengers of the captured merchantmen. The resulting tense standoff, like a hostage crisis with boats, culminates with a swashbuckling rescue, complete with a gravely wounded Ramage swooning in the arms of the newfound love of his life.

Mystery, romance, suspense, action, exotic (but real) scenery, and a foreshadowing of dramatic developments to come, make this an essential installment in a highly entertaining series of naval yarns. Though the characters speak in a modern idiom and behave according to present-day mores, the anachronism is perhaps forgivable because it brings the ideal age of naval conflict—even in an interval of official peace—so vividly and effortlessly into the mental world of today's reader. The romance between Nicholas and Sarah is of a tastefully mature order. The discussion of noblesse oblige reveals an insight into a world of motivations understood today by few who have been weaned on the ideals of the age of revolution. And if that isn't enough to make you want to read this book, the promise of a little commando warfare (in more than one sense of "commando") and a some spectacular explosions ought to do the trick.

Ramage's Devil
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 14+

1803. After a year of peace, war is on again between France and Britain. The sudden renewal of hostilities catches Royal Navy Capt. Nicholas Ramage and his bride Sarah in the middle of their honeymoon in France, guests of a nobleman who, just as suddenly, is arrested and sentenced to be transported to the notorious penal colony of Devil's Island. And a certain upstart First Consul, soon to become Emperor Napoleon I, demonstrates his barbarism by ordering the arrest of all British subjects caught on French soil—including civilians, and even women—in a radical break with the hitherto conventions of civilized warfare.

The 13th Lord Ramage Novel thus begins with Nicholas and Sarah's white-knuckle escape from certain imprisonment for the duration of the war, if not worse. Aided and abetted by four Frenchmen who can't abide Bonaparte, the Ramages recapture the British brig Murex, which a mutinous crew had surrendered to the French, and with the aid of the loyal officers and crew left on board as prisoners, sail her out under the shore-batteries of Brest. This leads to an encounter with the British fleet just arrived to blockade Brest, and then in turn to a reunion with Ramage's beloved frigate Calypso and all its officers and crew, who had been recommissioned in a hurry under a captain who proves to be so mad with drink that he has to be removed from command (the second of at least three similar storylines in successive books of the series). By a perhaps ludicrously improbable series of events, Ramage finds himself once again in command of Calypso, reunited with Aiken, Southwick, Orsini, and the rest, and sent to the insalubrious coast of French Guiana to rescue his French Royalist friend, and other political prisoners, from an evil fate on the aptly named Île du Diable.

I've already given away enough of this book's points of interest, if not too many. Let it suffice to say that to love the Lord Ramage series is to love this book, combining an attractive set of characters, modeled on present-day dramatic ideals, with daring naval exploits realistically depicted according to the maritime practices of the period—and what a fascinating period!

One might squirm a bit at author Pope's over-reliance on the literary device of turning an interesting excursus into some facet of naval life, such as the habits of the tropical boatswain bird or the precise definition of "point-blank range," into an instance of a character lapsing into daydreaming. This does become a repetitive pattern, and the characters' motivation for such bouts of woolgathering seems at times improbable if not bizarre; but with the right sense of humor you can read these in the spirit, I think, that Pope intended: as a consciously unreal, but entertaining, way of drawing the reader into a more fully real, highly colored, three-dimensional world in which wind and waves, honor and courage, and a bit of luck could change the course of history.

Ramage's Trial
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 14+

In Book 14 of the Lord Ramage series, the captain of His Majesty's Frigate Calypso has just brought a pair of French frigates into Barbados, among the first naval prizes of the new war against Napoleon, when he is dealt the first of a series of shrewd blows. His newlywed wife Sarah has disappeared, together with the brig Murex that was supposed to carry her home from the blockade of Brest. And just when Capt. Nicholas Ramage is on fire to get home, the port admiral puts him in charge of a large merchant convoy.

Convoy duty, as one may have learned from previous novels in this series, can be a fussing, frustrating, slow-moving bore. Even the company of an old friend—well-bred and well-heeled merchant Sidney Yorke—cannot entirely alleviate Ramage's agony, especially given that Yorke's beautiful, spirited, and obviously smitten sister Alexis must serve either as a temptation or as a reminder of his beloved wife. And then the British frigate Jason breaks the horizon, and throws everything out of whack.

Jason is commanded by a madman named William Shirley. Shirley cuts a remarkable figure, gliding upon his quarterdeck like a sleepwalker, dressed in a heavy cloak yet, in spite of the tropical climate, not even breaking a sweat. He has some kind of sinister hold over his officers and seamen, preventing them from helping the Calypsos understand why Jason attempted to ram them, then raked them with a broadside, though Shirley now denies that it ever happened. Since the Articles of War make scanty provision—really, none at all—for removing an unfit captain from command, Ramage risks more than just his career when he involves himself in the mystery of the Jason. In fact, as soon as Calypso moors off Plymouth, Ramage is targeted by a court-martial under laws which, if he is convicted, carry a mandatory sentence of death.

The really bad news is that the presiding officer at Ramage's trial is none other than Rear-Admiral Goddard, a man who has carried a political vendetta against Ramage's family since Nicholas was a child. Goddard has already done his utmost to destroy Ramage, and now with the authority to dictate the rules of evidence at Ramage's trial, he really seems to have our protagonist in his power. It is heartbreaking to see the spirit die within Ramage as he faces the virtual inevitability of his conviction, which Goddard has ensured by ruling out of order any defense he can possibly give. But neither Goddard nor Ramage has reckoned on the efficacy of one furious, strong-willed girl, nor on the surprise testimony of the one witness who has nothing to lose.

If you love naval action, or courtroom drama, or stories about virtually insoluble ethical and legal dilemmas, this is book will grip you. It will also inform you about a surprising variety of aspects of 19th century life and the maritime world, bringing that era and way of life all the more vividly before the senses. To be sure, it lacks the subtlety, depth, complexity, beauty of language, and historical realism of Patrick O'Brian's Aubreyiad, but it is part of a splendid entertainment nevertheless. I could damn it with faint praise and say that I have read many equally good books in this genre; but at the same time, I must candidly admit that I stayed up until 2:00 a.m. before a work-day to finish this book, because after a certain point I just couldn't put it down. So you can be sure that I'll be reading Book 15, Ramage's Challenge, as soon as I can get my hands on it!

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